Since the Boston Celtics won the NBA Draft Lottery a few weeks ago, I had been watching a lot of Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz highlights on YouTube. When Ball refused to work out for the Celtics–and when his father insisted the UCLA point guard would play for the Los Angeles Lakers–I focused much more heavily on Fultz, who had far less video available because he played for a bad Washington team that did not make the NCAA Tournament. What I did see of Fultz, however, was exciting. The kid is a great athlete with a pretty-looking shot and the wingspan of a seven-footer.
With the news that the Celtics have traded the #1 overall pick to the division rival Philadelphia 76ers, my pre-draft video attention will be shifted to Josh Jackson of Kansas, Jayson Tatum of Duke, and De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky. In exchange for the top pick, the Celtics get this year’s #3 pick from the Sixers and either the Lakers’ 2018 pick (if it falls between #2 and #5) or the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 pick (unprotected). While it is underwhelming right now to go from having the top pick, and dreaming of a guy who has been described as a “right handed James Harden,” a “taller, more defensively stout Damian Lillard,” and a “6’4″ Tracy McGrady” as the next great Celtic, it keeps Boston’s options open for years to come, rolling over the window to built through the draft. And again, Danny Ainge is operating from a point of power, and channeling his inner Bill Belichick.
By trading down and allowing the Sixers to draft Fultz, Philadelphia has a Baby Big Three in Fultz, 2016 #1 overall pick Ben Simmons, and 2014 #3 pick (who was the consensus top prospect but fell when he broke his leg days before the draft), and after years of tanking finally appear to be building a team, something Philly fans and NBA fans as a whole have waited far too long to see.
The Sixers were tanking way back when the Celtics were still tanking in 2014. The second round playoff between the Sixers and Celtics, featuring Doug Collins, Jrue Holiday, Andre Igoudala, Elton Brand, Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo may have been in 2012, but it feels like a million years ago, considering how different the two teams have become. After the Sixers traded Igoudala to the Denver Nuggets and acquired Andrew Bynum in the disastrous Dwight Howard Trade, and after Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat and the Celtics were eliminated in the first round by the only good New York Knicks team of the last 15 years, both teams were headed for a rebuild in the summer of 2013. Collins retired and Holiday was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, while the Celtics traded Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers, and traded KG and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets.
Both teams took the long view in hiring their next coach, with the Sixers hiring longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown, and the Celtics hiring Butler University coaching wunderkind Brad Stevens. Both teams spent the 2013-14 season vying for top position in the Draft Lottery, only for the Cleveland Cavaliers to land the #1 pick as well as the ultimate lottery by convincing LeBron James to come home. This is where the similarities between the Sixers’ rebuild and the Celtics’ rebuild end.
Philadelphia drafted Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in the 1st round of the 2014 Draft, but neither played in an NBA game until 2016. Former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie called it “The Process:” the method of drafting high-upside prospects, even if they will miss years due to injury or due to playing in Europe, and keeping the present-day 76ers team as bad as possible, staying in the lottery and increasing the chance of landing a franchise-changing superstar.
The Celtics, meanwhile, drafted Marcus Smart with the #6 pick in 2014, and continued to incrementally build their team. In 2015 and 2016, they made the playoffs, and in 2017, made the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics had their own version of The Process, but it was built on Brooklyn tanking for them, free to compete within the conference at the same time.
While it makes me nervous, on one hand, to trade the top pick and a potential superstar to a team in the division, I’m not about to doubt Danny Ainge. He did, after all, trade my two favorite Celtics of all time to division rival Brooklyn, and that turned out pretty well. While Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz are loaded with tantalizing potential, they also haven’t done anything yet. Philly’s Baby Big Three have played a combined 31 NBA games, with Simmons (another #1 overall pick whose college team missed the tournament) missing the entire 2016-17 season with an injury. As a fan of the NBA, I want there to be more good teams and more great players, and I want the Sixers’ young core to compete, but at some point they have to play. Embiid and Simmons have been highly anticipated, but the Celtics are giving their young players valuable experience. Ben Simmons hasn’t played a game yet, and Embiid has 31 games played in the three seasons since getting drafted, but Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown have won playoff rounds.
Going forward, the Celtics still have one more Brooklyn pick, and have the ability to tank vicariously through the Lakers, Kings, Clippers, and Memphis Grizzlies. Danny Ainge was willing to gamble and pass on Fultz, even if it means being mocked in the short-term. This is guy who pulled the trades for Allen and Garnett, sold off Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers when their values were still quite high, and turned the Boston into a franchise that is in as good position as anyone in the East to wait out LeBron’s prime. He didn’t turn stupid overnight. As much fun as rooting for Markelle Fultz might have been, I have trouble doubting Ainge’s plan right now.
They have a great goalie in Braden Holtby. They have a great coach in Barry Trotz (Trotz Trotz Trotz! As Tony Kornheiser is fond of saying). They have one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of hockey in Alex Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals are the class of the NHL’s Eastern Conference and should be the the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final, if not win it, yet in the Ovechkin Era, they have never gotten out of the second round. It’s at the point where you have to ask about the Caps: if they can’t do it this year, will they ever?
This has been the history of the Washington Capitals for some 40 years. They are often good, occasionally great in the regular season, but that greatness almost never translates for more than a round in the playoffs, with the exception of the 1997-98 season when they made the Final, but lost to the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. They are the “choking dogs,” as Kornheiser likes to call them, of the NHL. Some of it is bad luck, some of it in recent years has been running into Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington’s personal kryptonite.
Jokes are often made that the San Jose Sharks are the Capitals of the Western Conference, or that the Caps are the Sharks of the East, but even San Jose broke through and made the Final last season. If the last 12 months have taught us nothing else, we have certainly learned that the unexpected can and will happen, and sports curses are made to be broken. The Sharks broke through the same year as the Cubs, and the Caps could be next.
That is why they are one of the biggest winners of the NHL trade deadline, acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues without having to give up anyone from their NHL roster. Shattenkirk not only bolsters their strength at the blue line, he is perhaps better prepared for what the Washington Capitals need than anyone on the trade market. Shattenkirk made a name for himself as a power-play quarterback in St. Louis, being the guy to set up Russian-born sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, so it should be an easy transition dishing the puck to Russian-born sniper Alex Ovechkin in D.C.
Best of all for the Capitals, Kevin Shattenkirk is the opposite of a choking dog: he is a prevailing Terrier. Shattenkirk was a member of the Boston University Terriers team that won the NCAA National Championship in 2009, and he assisted Colby Cohen on the overtime game-winner in the National Championship Game against Miami University. That game, it should be noted, was played at Verizon Center in Washington D.C., so Shattenkirk may have experienced better postseason success at Verizon Center, albeit in college, than anyone on the Capitals’ roster.
Nothing is guaranteed in hockey. Nothing is guaranteed in any sport, but that is especially true in hockey because it is on ice, and everything that happens is based on another mistake. That being said, on paper, the Caps should be the best team at the end, and that was true before adding Shattenkirk. Bur history also tells us the team that should win and the team that does win are often not the same. This trade helps their chances of a better outcome, though. We will see how it plays out.
One of my biggest regrets as a writer is the two years or so I took off from writing about sports on the Internet from the spring of 2011 to the spring of 2013. On the one hand, I absolutely needed to reset and refocus as a writer, and I had other things going on and some perspective would have done me a lot of good. If I continued writing the way I had been, in the style I had been, on the blog I had been, I would have burnt out sooner or later, and I would not be writing here for you today in 2017. On the other hand, there is no written evidence, no previous article I wrote that I can link to, that can prove how right I was about Kirk Cousins.
We sports writers, amateur and professional alike, we sports enthusiasts who call and email talk radio shows and fill Reddit threads with opinions and analysis, we love making predictions, and we love being able to go back and prove we were right when our opinion in the moment was not the consensus or the prevailing opinion. Now that Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins has been franchised for the second straight year, and now that he is set to be one of the most interesting and in-demand assets in the NFL, I wish I had been maintaining a blog in the spring of 2012, when the Redskins took two quarterbacks, so I could have written that Cousins was a real NFL QB, that having a guy like Cousins drafted alongside Robert Griffin III would not end well for Washington, and the overlooked Cousins would be itching to prove himself. Five years later, the Washington football team that had two rookie quarterbacks may very well lose them both, with nothing but a couple of one-and-done playoff appearances to show for it.
Last offseason, the Redskins placed the franchise tag on Kirk Cousins, rather than signing him to a contract extension, after a 2015 season in which he won the starting job away from Griffin for good and led Washington to an NFC East division title. The Skins cut RGIII (who signed with the Cleveland Browns and subsequently got injured in the first game of the regular season), but were not ready to commit to Cousins long-term. That line of thinking is entirely defensible on its own. Cousins had one good season as a starter under his belt, and it would be reasonable for a team to want to see more before committing top dollar and many years to a relatively unproven player, but then Cousins had another good season in 2016. Sure, the Redskins struggled down the stretch and missed the playoffs, but they had also not put in place a backup plan.
The only quarterback to play on the franchise tag twice was Drew Brees with the San Diego Chargers, who eventually walked in free agency and signed with the New Orleans Saints, where he has been such a great face of the franchise that I often forget he was in San Diego and get caught off guard when scrolling through Google Images for pictures for articles I am writing. The difference between what the Chargers were doing a decade ago with Brees and what the Redskins are doing now with Cousins is that San Diego drafted Philip Rivers during that time (well, actually they drafted Eli Manning, but traded him for Rivers when the Mannings made it clear Eli did not want to be in San Diego), and gave Rivers a couple years in the system to develop before Brees left to go get paid by the Saints. I thought back in 2012 that Cousins, like Brees, would leave Washington to go get paid by another franchise, and eventually be synonymous with that second franchise the way Brees is with New Orleans, but I thought that would be because of the flashes he showed backing up RGIII, not because he proved himself as the starter in Washington like he ended up doing.
Rather than sign him to an extension, the Redskins placed a second franchise tag on Cousins. If they do not sign him to an extension, Cousins will most certainly leave Washington. Why would he stay with an organization that has been so hesitant to believe in him? That has forced him to bet on himself season after season? Cousins has been well compensated by the Redskins, thanks to the franchise tag, yet they are still finding ways to alienate their franchise QB. Why would he stay in Washington when there are two NFL franchises now coached by former offensive coordinators of his (Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, and Sean McVay in Los Angeles), who would take him over their current quarterback situations, even if it means waiting another year.
The Rams and 49ers should not be the only teams interested in Cousins’ services. He has a lot going for him, even compared to the other highly regarded NFL quarterbacks being talked about as trade chips right now. Cousins is eight years younger, and far less injury-prone, than Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, and has a far greater sample size for teams to look at than New England Patriots backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo (who started five quarters during Tom Brady’s suspension before getting hurt), but no matter what happens, I cannot shake the feeling that the Redskins will mess this up. That’s what they are known for in the Dan Snyder Era.
Since Snyder bought the team in 1999, the Redskins have had a high amount of turnover at the head coach and quarterback positions, not as high as the Cleveland Browns, but certainly not a model for consistency and continuity in professional sports, either. Head coach Jay Gruden is going into his fourth year of a five year contract the same year that Kirk Cousins is poised to play on a second straight franchise season. Why would Cousins want to sign an extension with a team that might be on the verge of turning over its coaching staff yet again? By Snyder’s own reputation, they are due.
When they quarterback draft class of 2012 was in college, Cousins was the one I saw the most on TV. I knew about Andrew Luck at Stanford and Robert Griffin III at Baylor, as they were the Heisman favorites all season, but for whatever reason, Cousins’ Michigan State team was on TV all the time in Massachusetts, it seemed, and I was in the habit of watching a lot more college football than I have in the years since (spoiler alert: I was in college, living in the dorms), so I was impressed with Cousins’ play at the time, and was particularly baffled when Washington decided to trade up in the draft to #2 overall to take Griffin, and then also take Cousins in the 4th round. How could that possibly end well?
While I prided myself on picking up on Cousins getting overlooked, and that driving him to improve the way he did, I was, of course, also guilty of overlooking Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson, who was taken by the Seattle Seahawks the round before Cousins, and who has played in two Super Bowls and has had the best career of the four quarterbacks to this point. As disappointed as I am in not having proof that I was bullish on Cousins in 2012, I am also thankful I don’t have written proof like that about how wrong I was about Russell Wilson. I guess it was all for the best I took those two years off and I am here now to write about it.
This year’s NBA playoffs has been the most exciting and competitive tournament since I started following basketball in the mid-90s. Usually the NBA playoffs feel formulaic and predictable, with home teams winning, and higher seeds advancing, and players, coaches, owners, and fans alike suspected that David Stern wanted series to go as long as possible and get the best matchups possible for the purpose of TV revenue. Adam Silver has shown us that his NBA is different from the one he inherited in February. First by improving the officiating, and then by dropping the hammer on Donald Sterling, Silver has taken on two of the biggest criticisms of the National Basketball Association, and has come out the victor so far.
It took the San Antonio Spurs seven games to dispose of Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks. It took the Indiana Pacer seven games to knock off the pesky Atlanta Hawks, who had no business competing with a team like Indiana if you look at the rosters. Both #1 seeds made it out of the first round, but it was a lot harder than most years. In the case of San Antonio, they get the benefit of the doubt because the Western Conference is really good and the Mavericks won an NBA Title in 2011 with Dirk Nowizki and Rick Carlisle. That’s a team that’s not afraid of the Spurs, and not a stranger to big games this time of year. The Pacers, on the other hand, should have disposed of the Atlanta Hawks in five games, if not sooner. It took seven games for the Los Angeles Clippers to eliminate the Golden State Warriors, and managed to pull through despite the distraction of team owner Donald Sterling being horribly racist and earning a lifetime ban from the NBA. It took seven games for the aged Brooklyn Nets to get past the upstart Toronto Raptors, earning a chance to face the two time defending champion Miami Heat in the second round. It took seven games for newly crowned MVP Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder to beat the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Grizz ma have won that series if Zach Randolph had not been suspended for the deciding seventh game. Perhaps the most dramatic finish was in a series clinching sixth game, where Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers drained a three-pointer at the buzzer to put the Blazers ahead, and end the season of the Houston Rockets. It’s been fun. I’m a bigger hockey fan than basketball fan, but this tournament has the feel of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The only way it would be better is if the Celtics were involved and I had a horse in the race.
The second round has plenty of chances for upset as well. Brooklyn played well against Miami this season, and Paul Pierce has been the biggest nemesis standing in LeBron’s way since he came into the league, with the possible exception of Tim Duncan. Pierce and Kevin Garnett are wearing different laundry this time around, but they’re both still Celtics at heart. I would love to see them be the guys to knock off the heat once again. After their dramatic finish against Houston, Portland now has their hands full with the Spurs. Damian Lillard was the #6 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, and the Rookie of the Year in 2013. Now in 2014, he’s lighting it up in the playoffs and giving Blazers fans a lot to be excited about for the future. Blazers owner Paul Allen, who co-founded a little company called Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975, is one of the best owners in sports and won his first championship when the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl in February. Could he go two for two this year?
The Indiana Pacers can’t get out of their own way, and the Washington Wizards are not afraid. Washington knocked off the Chicago Bulls with relative east in the first round, and now John Wall is looking to make a name for himself against the very skilled, but underachieving Pacers. Roy Hibbert has been a complete non-factor so far in the playoffs, and Frank Vogel’s job might not be safe unless Indiana reaches the Finals considering how well they played in the first half of the season and the big game they talked. Washington isn’t afraid of the Pacers, and John Wall has been playing like the #1 overall pick he was a few years ago. If we end up with a Washington vs. Portland NBA Finals, it would be a true throwback to the pre-David Stern era in the NBA, when the Washington Bullets and Seattle Supersonics met in the Finals back-to-back years in the late 70s (1979 was the last time the road team won Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Talk about predictable.), and the Blazers won a Title of their own.
I still don’t know what to make of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers. LA has the coaching advantage with Doc Rivers, and Thunder coach Scott Brooks is in a predicament similar to Frank Vogel if OKC’s season ends sooner than expected. There are a lot of good coaches without coaching jobs right now who would love to coach Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and if Brooks can’t do the job, Lionel Hollins, Doug Collins, George Karl, or Lawrence Frank might be coaching in Oklahoma City this time next year. That being said, Durant had an awesome year, and I’d take him and Westbrook over Chris Paul and Blake Griffin most days of the week. It should be a tight series.
I’d love to see upsets, especially of Miami and OKC, and I’d really love to see Doc Rivers coaching against Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in the Finals, but either way, I have never been more interested in a playoff tournament that didn’t have a Boston team in it.
It’s March. Spring Training is underway, and the weather is going to start to get warmer. Soon enough we will have baseball again. It will be tough to top what happened in 2013 (full disclosure: I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan), but the start of baseball means a rebirth and a fresh start once again. I’m not good at predicting what will happen, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try.
1. Atlanta Braves. Once again, the National League East is Atlanta’s division to lose. That’s been the norm for most of the time since I started following baseball in the mid-90s. The Braves are built to be a great regular season team, but that must be frustrating if you’re a fan of the team. You’re in it every year, but the only time they won the World Series during that stretch was in 1995 against the Cleveland Indians. The Braves have only won the World Series three times in their history: once in Boston, once in Milwaukee, and once in Atlanta. If you ask me, they’ll have to move to Japan, Vegas, or Vancouver before they win it again. Then again, there was a time in my life where I thought I would never live to see my beloved Red Sox win the World Series. They won the World Series when I was 14, and they’ve won it twice since then. Baseball has a way of imposing an existential sense of doom on people from an early age.
The Braves lineup boasts a lot of power from the brother B.J. and Justin Upton, and Dan Uggla. Jason Heyward is the team’s best athlete, and can make plays in the field as well as he can around the bases, and is only 24 despite having played in the majors since 2010. Freddie Freeman, when healthy is the team’s best hitter, and he’s only five months older than I am, which makes me feel like I haven’t accomplished enough in life (again with the baseball related existential crises, but enough about me). The loss of Tim Husdon from the starting rotation is a significant one, but not one they can’t overcome. Hudson is on the back nine of his career, but he was a great veteran presence in the Braves’ clubhouse. The loss of catcher Bryan McCann, in my opinion, hurts the Braves more than it helps the Yankees, but Atlanta was right not to overpay for an aging catcher who is not very good behind the plate. I expect to win the division, or at least make the playoffs, but going any further is not a safe bet with this team.
2. Washington Nationals. The Nats took a step backward last year, but had been trending in the right direction the past few years. In 2012, they were overly cautious about their future when they shelved Stephen Strasburg for the playoffs and they ended up not doing anything in the playoffs. They potentially left a championship on the table, and didn’t even get back to the playoffs in 2013. The success of the Nationals depends heavily on the health of their young stars Strasburg and Bryce Harper. If those guys are right, Washington has a chance to overtake Atlanta. If not, they’re a very mediocre team struggling for relevance and losing fan interest to the Orioles.
Beyond Strasburg and Harper, the Nationals have solid pitching from Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, and former Detroit Tiger Doug Fister, and solid hitting from Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, and Denard Span. This should be the roster of a playoff team, but there would be no point in having a 162 game regular season if we didn’t need them to go out and prove it. If they stay healthy, the Nationals should be a contender in the National League.
With Davey Johnson’s retirement at the end of last season, the Nats hired Matt Williams as their new skipper. This is Williams’ first managerial gig, but he already made a name for himself as a power hitter in his playing days. Williams was named in the Mitchell Report in 2007, but that did not stop him from getting coaching jobs, so hopefully this hire helps the baseball writers come to grips with the Steroid Era and hopefully it gets them off their high horse. Time will tell, I suppose.
3. New York Mets. In 2013, Mets fans had a reason to be optimistic about their team for the first time in years. They had endured years of September collapse, owners victimized by Ponzi scheme, bad free agent signings like Jason Bay and Francisco Rodriguez, and inability to keep their own star players like Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey. Then Matt Harvey happened. The 24 year old starting pitcher was the story of the first half of the season in the National League last year, and earned the honor of being the NL’s starting pitcher in the All-Star game that was hosted by the Mets. Last August, Harvey tore a ligament in his elbow, and required Tommy John Surgery. His return is uncertain for this season, but that’s the New York Mets in a nutshell.
The Mets have quite a few has-beens on their roster including Curtis Granderson, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Bartolo Colon. David Wright and Daniel Murphy are pretty good players, but without Harvey, it’s hard to get excited about the Mets’ chances in 2014. The division is relatively flat after the Braves and Nats, so I suppose the Mets have as good a chance as anyone to compete, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Manager Terry Collins has a lot on his plate dealing with the pressure and expectations of playing in New York. If they Mets have another slow start, the media and the fans will grow impatient. They’re not just competing with the Braves, Nationals, Marlins, and Phillies in the National League East; they’re competing with the free spending Yankees for headlines in The Times, The Post, and The Daily News.
4. Miami Marlins. Last year, the Marlins were the laughingstock of Major League Baseball. Miami has easily been the most poorly run franchise to win multiple championships in my lifetime in any of the four major sports. After a disappointing 2012 season, they traded away their expensive talent to the Toronto Blue Jays, and appeared unwilling to spend money, a year after opening a new ballpark paid for by Florida taxpayers. Owner Jeffrey Loria is one of the worst owners in all of sports, and he showed us once again why. The result was a lost season with low attendance, but the Marlins have a chance to be better in 2014. They’re not a great team yet, but they’re headed in the right direction.
The Marlins appear to be building around 24 year old power hitting outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. This winter, the Marlins signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia away from the World Series winning Red Sox. Salty is an above average hitting catcher, who the Red Sox may have decided to part with because of his poor performance in the World Series. If he makes more accurate throws to third base, then the Red Sox win it sooner than Game 6. Salty struggled at the plate against St. Louis, and was benched in favor of David Ross for the final two games of the World Series. Salty is from Miami and it’s a great pickup for a team looking to improve its image among its fans and around the majors. Miami made another solid free agent signing when they brought in 36 year old former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal. They might not be the best team out there, but at least they will be respectable in 2014. Provided that Loria doesn’t blow up the baseball operation again to save a few bucks, the Marlins will be a contender sooner rather than later.
5. Philadelphia Phillies. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Phillies were the best team in the National League and among the best in all of baseball. When they won the 2008 World Series over the Tampa Bay Rays, it appeared to be the start of a dynasty. The following year, they were back in the World Series, but fell short against the loaded New York Yankees. With each year, they would end up a little further from the ultimate prize. They had great hitters in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth. They had great pitchers in Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt. Now Victorino is roaming the Boston outfield, Werth is roaming the Washington outfield, and Halladay and Oswalt are both out of baseball. What is left is an aging shell of a dynasty that could have been.
Last summer, Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. put an unceremonious end to this era in Phillies baseball when he fired field manager Charlie Manuel before the ceremony they team had planned to commemorate his 1,000th managerial win. Philadelphia is a tough city to be a coach because of the high expectations placed on the teams by the passionate fans and media members, but Charlie handled Philly really well. Despite the firing, Manuel is still with the organization as a special adviser to Amaro. Manager duties have been handed over to Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who split his playing career between the Phillies and Cubs, two of the lowliest teams in the history of baseball. Ryno has a tough job, but hopefully the Phillies give him a chance with the less than stellar roster they currently have. Howard, Utley, Rollins, Hamels, and Lee are all still in Philly, but they are all getting up there in age. Hamels is only 30, but the others are all either 34 or 35. With each passing season, the 2008 World Series appears five years further away in the rear view mirror.
The year 2013 is drawing to a close, and looking back on it, Washington D.C. had probably the worst year of any city in North America. New York came close, but D.C. takes the title this year. The failures of Washington don’t end with Congress, either. The Redskins, firmly entrenched in a decades long conflict over the offensiveness of their team name, struggled mightily to do much of anything on the offensive side of the ball. Robert Griffin III was not right this year. It started with their one playoff game last January, when Griffin played on a bad knee that needed offseason surgery. Not only did the Skins lose to the Seattle Seahawks that day, but Griffin lost the ability to play in the preseason and take a step forward after an impressive rookie season. RG3 has regressed, backup QB Kirk Cousins has played his way, into a quarterback controversy, Mike Shanahan has been fired, and the St. Louis Rams now have Washington’s first round pick in the 2014 draft from when the Redskins traded up to get RG3. The Redskins are making Congress look competent.
I think Griffin still has a bright future in this league, but I’m not sure it’s with this team. The same can be said for Kirk Cousins, who could start for half the teams in the NFL right now but had the misfortune of being drafted in the 4th round the same year Washington used the 2nd overall pick to acquire Griffin (one of the many head scratching moves of the Shanahan Era). St. Louis, who still believes in Sam Bradford as their franchise quarterback, is in a great position to load up their team this spring, while Washington is stuck with the player they gambled to acquire. In the meantime, they have a mess, no head coach, no 1st round draft pick, and an aging defense on their hands. Now would be as good a time as any for Daniel Snyder to be more open to changing the team’s very dated name to get some positive PR for the franchise, but that’s not likely to happen.
The Redskins and the federal government were not Washington’s only institutional failures in 2013. The Washington Nationals looked like a new franchise and a winning franchise in 2012. They had finally rid themselves of the stink of the Montreal Expos after seven years in the nation’s capital, complete with a talented young roster headlined by ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg and teenage outfielder Bryce Harper. The Nats were one of the best teams in all of baseball in the 2012 regular season, and looked poised for a deep playoff run. Then they thought too much. Strasburg had missed the 2011 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, but was back to his dominant form in 2012. The Nationals’ front office wanted to limit the number of innings he pitched, however, so they decided to shut him down in September and keep him off the active roster in the playoffs, thinking that 2012 was the start of a run of success and that they would be back again in 2013. The Nationals squandered a good chance and were bounced in the first round, and were unable to repeat their success this year. They missed the playoffs, and as long as they continue to do so, people will be able to point to the decision to shut Strasburg down and think about what might have been. Who knows? The San Francisco Giants might still have won the National League Pennant and the World Series that year, but you can’t win if you don’t play. The 2012 Nats missed a shot by not taking it, and they fell back to earth in 2013.
2014 is a new beginning for everyone, but 2013 can’t end soon enough for Washington. At least they still have John Wall and Alex Ovechkin to be excited about.
Hockey fans love their sport. They love the fast pace, the hard hits, the balance of skill and toughness, and they love when players drop the gloves to fight. Hitting and fighting are two polarizing issues that turn many away from the sport, and many within the sport want it taken out. I am personally a fan of hitting and fighting, and I feel they have a place in the game, but not every hit and every fight is necessary. It’s an issue that’s been talked about a lot lately as Bruins legend Bobby Orr has been promoting his new book and Orr was a good fighter and a staunch defender of fighting in hockey. The rules should be rewritten to keep the good hits and good fights in the game, but take out that which is detrimental to the game. That’s easier said than done, as evidenced by the confusion around the league’s “instigator penalty” that always seems to punish the wrong player more severely, but it would be a better solution than removing such a great aspect of the game entirely, and better for player safety than a completely laissez-faire system as well.
Two recent incidents provide the anti-violence faction with a lot of ammunition. On October 23rd, in a game between the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres, Buffalo enforcer John Scott delivered a brutal open-ice hit to Bruins forward Loui Eriksson well after Eriksson dumped the puck into the offensive zone. Scott, who stands six feet and eight inches off the ground without skates, elbowed Eriksson in the head, concussing him. Scott is listed on Wikipedia as a defenseman/winger, but he only really only on the ice to hurt people, as evidenced by the one career goal he has scored since making his NHL debut in 2008. Last season, he fought Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton (who is capable of a lot more than just fighting), and gabe him a concussion. The only player bigger than Scott in the NHL is Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, but Big Z means too much to the Bruins to waste his time and risk injury standing up to Scott. He made the hit at a time when the defending Eastern Conference Champion Bruins were leading the Sabres, maybe the worst team in the NHL, by two goals, and took an integral part of the Bruins roster out of the game with him on that hit. Loui started skating with the team again a couple days ago, but has not yet been cleared for contact and his return date is uncertain. For the hit, Scott was only suspended seven games by the NHL.
Even more recently, on Friday November 1st, the Washington Capitals held a 7-0 lead over another terrible team, the Philadelphia Flyers. Philly forward Wayne Simmonds started the action with Washington forward Tom Wilson. It wasn’t a necessary fight. He wasn’t avenging foul play or anything, but Simmonds was trying to do something to get his team fired up. That would have been all well and good for proponents of hockey fights, but Flyers netminder Ray Emery had to cross the line. Emery, who did not start the game but was on in relief (nor did he start a single game in the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup run last year despite getting his name etched on the Cup), skated across the red line and both blue lines to pick a fight with Caps’ goalie Braden Holtby, who had no interest in joining him. Holtby was pitching a shutout. Why would he want to drop the gloves and risk injury. Emery didn’t care. He was going to Holtby whether Holtby wanted to or not. Emery gave Holt by a few munches to the back of the head, which is illegal in MMA fighting, and the game escalated into a line brawl. The Flyers are going nowhere this season, especially after firing head coach Peter Laviolette last month, and Ray Emery decided to take out his frustration by trying to hurt a good goalie on a team that expects to be in the playoffs. The NHL announced that Emery would not be suspended for the incident.
I think most hits in hockey are clean, and most fights are defensible, but the ones that cross the line, like John Scott and Ray Emery, give hockey a bad name. When you try to defend fighting in hockey or the game of hockey itself, people will point to these incidents, as well as Todd Bertuzzi, Matt Cooke, Raffi Torres, Dale Hunter and others, as the faces of the game and the reason the NHL does not belong with the NBA, NFL, and MLB as a major sports league that sports fans should care about. It’s too bad. The NHL has exciting games, a great playoff tournament, athletes regular people can relate to, and the greatest trophy in all of sports, but all casual fans see is the goon show put on by these fringe players.